Bernie Sanders absorbed an onslaught from all six rivals in the first minutes of Tuesday night’s debate as the Democratic presidential candidates faced off in their last encounter before a crucial round of primaries that likely set the course for the rest of the race.
Elizabeth Warren accused Sanders of stealing details of her health-care plan, Michael Bloomberg said Russia’s intelligence services favor him because Vladimir Putin wants President Donald Trump to be re-elected and Joe Biden criticized his past stances on gun control.
“I’ve been hearing my name mentioned a little bit tonight,” Sanders said as the other six candidates on the stage in Charleston, South Carolina, delivered broadsides.
The debate quickly became a brawl, with Bloomberg responding to a question about the economy by saying that Putin wants to see Trump stay in the office and has begun deploying help to Sanders online because he wants to see the Vermont senator “lose to” Trump.
“Let me tell Mr. Putin, I’m not a good friend of President Xi of China,” Sanders retorted in a reference to comments Bloomberg has made about the Chinese leader. “Hey Mr. Putin, if I’m president of the United States, you’re not going to interfere in” U.S. elections, he said.
Warren, who has generally refrained from attacking her fellow progressive in previous debates, also joined in the fray. She suggested Sanders has good ideas but hasn’t offered details about how he’d accomplish his goals.
“We need a president who will dig in and do the hard work,” Warren said.
They were joined by Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer at the debate sponsored by CBS and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.
The debate comes ahead of Saturday’s South Carolina primary. Although Bloomberg isn’t on the ballot there, he’s seeking to make his mark in the nomination fight ahead of Super Tuesday, when 14 states vote. States voting on March 3 include huge delegate prizes of California and Texas, as well as the populous states of North Carolina and Virginia.
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
After a decisive victory in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, a win in the New Hampshire primary and securing the popular vote in Iowa, Sanders is leading or tied for the top spot in many of those states, with Bloomberg and Biden fighting for runner-up status.
Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Steyer need strong performances in Tuesday night’s debate to propel them into Super Tuesday with enough momentum to collect some delegates.
While Sanders is looking to solidify his standing, Bloomberg is trying to recover from a much-criticized debut on the debate stage last week. The former New York mayor was besieged by his rivals, particularly Warren, who took him to task over stop-and-frisk policing policies, allegations of a hostile work environment for women at his company and for self-funding his campaign at record levels.
The focus on Bloomberg allowed Sanders to emerge from that debate largely unscathed.
The debate will be crucial for Biden. He is desperate for a victory in the state he long appeared to be dominant in, and he may be in position to win. A Public Policy Polling survey released Monday showed him with a broad lead over Sanders, 36% to 21%. Other polls show the race closer.
After embarrassing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a second-place finish in Nevada, even a South Carolina victory might not boost Biden enough to give him momentum going into Super Tuesday.
Sanders has the lead in the delegate count, with 45 to Buttigieg’s 25. Biden has 15, and the rest of the field each has fewer than 10.
— With assistance by Joe Sobczyk
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